O que podem as palavras at DocLisboa’s twentieth year

DocLisboa had its twentieth edition this year, which also marked twenty years of the festival. Between October 6 and 16, we were invited to travel through the past, always with our eyes on the future, as usual. In cycles such as From the Earth to the Moon, Heart Beat, New Visions, Green Years, Doc Alliance, Cinema of Urgency, in the Carlos Reichenbach and Colonial Question retrospectives, besides the international and national competitions, where we are invited to question the present looking at the patchwork of our past.

Miguel Ribeiro, Doclisboa’s director, wrote in the opening message of this edition’s catalogue, “These films, which are initiatory acts of taking the camera and, with cinema, telling one’s own story and the story of those who form alliances. A cinema that is a fighting weapon and is charged of solidarity (…) Over these twenty years, the world has changed many times. There have been few occasions where it was simple to understand if it was getting better. But we are happy to know that DocLisboa has always brought together the curious and the restless ones. We will always want to honour this curiosity and restlessness. We want to continue to show this fighting spirit and passion (…) Together we build the future.” With this curious and restless tone, within this cinema that is a fighting weapon, charged with solidarity, I might say, sorority, we have come across the film O que podem as palavras.

In 1972, the writers Maria Teresa Horta, Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Isabel Barreno published the book Novas Cartas Portuguesas”. This is the starting point of Luísa Sequeira and Luísa Marinho’s film. In a journey through the national archives and interviews made by Ana Luísa Amaral to the three authors, besides testimonies by Gilda Grillo and Adelino Gomes, we get to know the national and international impact of this work. And, through it all, see the role of women in Portuguese and world society in the 1970s.

The scant significance of this work in the world feminist movement, where the support given to the Três Marias, as they were known at the time, was the first international feminist action, proves how much we still don’t know about our History and the silenced narratives that remain forgotten.

The difficulty the filmmakers experienced in accessing national archives, for logistical or financial reasons, reminds us of what needs to be done to democratise archives and simplify research work in Portugal. How much of our History and so many collective Stories elude us through the gaps in national archives, and remain to be studied, catalogued, and made available? How much of our History is still to be rediscovered in archives that perpetuate archaic cataloguing methods, crystallising a hegemonic History told by a single voice?

O que podem as palavras revisits one of the most remarkable moments in Portuguese feminist history. After the publication of the book Novas Cartas Portuguesas, which lasted only two days in the bookshops before being seized by the police, the women writers were persecuted and intimidated by the Estado Novo regime. To humiliate them, the matter was handled by the customs police and not by the DGS (former PIDE). Therefore, the book would be considered only pornographic content, without political tenor and purpose.

But the Regime did not expect that the International Feminist Movement would mobilise worldwide to support the Três Marias. In the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they found correspondence from Portuguese ambassadors from all over the world, mentioning news of the persecution by the Estado Novo against Novas Cartas Portuguesas. Reports from places like Japan, the United States, New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, or Latin America. The entire world turned its eyes to Portugal, condemning the Portuguese regime for its repression and the patriarchal values of a society crystallized in time during the 70s of the 20th century.

To learn more about the project, I got in touch with Luísa Sequeira and Luísa Marinho for a short interview.

Margarida Botelho – At this moment, what will the national and international screening of the film be like?

Luísa Marinho and Luísa Sequeira – We want it to have a commercial premiere. Hopefully, it’ll be in April or May. In the meantime, we’ve submitted the film to a few international festivals. We’re waiting for their replies.

MB – How was the initial process for the film and how did you start working together?

LM – The story of the Três Marias had interested me for a long time. I had already thought of making a documentary about it. But it was only when Ana Luísa Amaral invited me – and Luísa Sequeira – that the idea became more plausible. I was one of Ana Luísa Amaral’s students at the Faculty of Letters, University of Porto. We became friends. At that time, I was already a journalist and had made a documentary (Poeticamente Exausto, Verticalmente Só – A história de José Bação Leal, 2007), about literature and resistance against the dictatorship. Maybe that’s why she invited me. Ana Luísa Amaral was developing a research project on the international impact of Novas Cartas and I wanted to go ahead with the documentary.

LS – I met Ana Luísa Amaral during an interview. At the time, I was coordinating and presenting Fotograma, an authorial film programme in Portuguese. I remember it was an amazing encounter. We spoke about cinema, poetry, and motherhood in capitalist society. We immediately forged a special bond. At the time, I had made a documentary for RTP about Fernanda Lapa’s staging of Paula Vogel’s play A mais velha profissão. This play challenged women’s economic situation in a sexist society. In this context, I was invited by Ana Luísa Amaral to be part of the beautiful process of making the documentary.

MB – Was the first contact with the Três Marias simple or was there resistance? How did the idea of Ana Luísa Amaral directing the interviews come about?

LM and LS – It was a very natural process. Right at the beginning, we chose Ana Luísa Amaral, who scheduled the interviews with them. She was a friend of all three. There was a close and very trusting relationship. I don’t think there was any resistance. Quite the contrary.

MB – In the Q&A you spoke about the difficulties of producing the film, a work that you have been doing for ten years. Can you tell me about this process? Not only the difficulties and delays, but also the way in which you have been developing the film over time; the stages, advances and setbacks, victories, and obstacles.

LM and LS – There were overly exciting moments, especially when we interviewed them and discovered new things. As time went by and the lack of support – we competed in countless contests, such as ICA, RTP, GULBENKIAN contests, but nothing came out of that -, we decided to focus on other projects. This one remained in “bain-marie.” But it was never abandoned. In fact, we did several interviews during the process. We interviewed the researchers of the internationalisation project of Novas Cartas Portuguesas. Luísa Sequeira went to Brazil to interview Gilda Grillo. Luísa Marinho, invited by Ana Margarida – who was part of the Novas Cartas research group – went to the University of Exeter in England. We often said that we needed to move forward, even if we did something smaller. On the other hand, we felt that the material deserved a proper handling. We managed to produce and finish the film with the production company Anexo82. Ana Almeida was tireless. She always believed in the project. And she was also especially important in the editing because she gave a fresh perspective on the images. It was a highly collaborative process. And very intense. The three of us were in the editing room. In a reference to Novas Cartas Portuguesas “In the editing rooms the three of us were wanted, alert to embroider the days with countless silences”. We were also together “embroidering” the film, three women and Sama (laughs). So, when we got the funding, we wanted to finish it with quality and quickly.

MB – Sama’s illustrations are a structural part of the film’s aesthetic. Why did you decide to add that and why him?

LM and LS – It was a decision made at the beginning. Sama always followed the project, producing illustrations and suggesting visual solutions for the film, even when this was just a file that we submitted to film competitions. It was natural that the illustrations would turn into animations and manipulations. Sama is an artist who knows history and is an excellent storyteller! His method of animation, a unique mise-en-scène with cut-outs, collages, and objects, in addition to his original drawings, which we call “samanimation”, had already been efficient in the series MOTEL SAMA, shown a few years before on Canal Brasil, and which also appears in a short film version at the Luso Brazilian Festival, Santa Maria da Feira. Sama’s timing, together with his keen and original aesthetic sense, adds organicity, suspense and humour to our film.

MB – The research gathers information and documentation of major historical value. Will there be another type of publication with some of the information that could not be put into the film?

LM and LS – There is a book entitled As Novas Cartas Portuguesas entre Portugal e o Mundo, organized by Ana Luísa Amaral and Marinela Freitas, which is the outcome of the research on the international impact of Novas Cartas. As we have plenty of material not used in the film, apart from drawings and artistic material, that possibility does exist. This is a complex work. One of the ramifications is the play that Luísa Sequeira wrote and is staging, Rosas de Maio. It is the fruit of an artistic and research process, a co-production of TEP – Teatro Experimental do Porto and TMP – Teatro Municipal do Porto, and it will be staged on November 11, 12 and 13 at the Rivoli, Porto.

MB – What does it mean for you to give visibility again to Novas Cartas Portuguesas, more than half a century after its publication? How do they dialogue with contemporaneity, with 21st century women and the deconstruction of gender binaries?

LM – Questioning gender roles is already a step towards deconstructing binarity. In the book, sometimes they “play” with that, like in the text O Corpo. Their critique of masculinity is current and germane. Furthermore, they address other topics, such as environmental issues, war, colonialism, gender violence, the oppression of women and men in repressive and authoritarian societies. These themes remain up to date.

LSNovas Cartas Portuguesas is a strong book that continues to address contemporary issues. History is not crystallised. It is increasingly urgent to question and reflect on our journey through history, as women have lost all their freedoms, economic, social. They have been and continue to be the bedrock of capitalist society, for we are the production force. We have a long way to go. Inequalities are brutal, the feminisation of poverty is constant. We live in a patriarchal and capitalist world with many forms of oppression.

O que podem as palavras won the Público Newspaper Award for best Portuguese film and marked DocLisboa’s twentieth edition. Travelling back in time, it reminded us of what we have to do in the future. Mia Tomé, who lent her voice to the film: My sisters, but what can literature do? Or rather, what can words do? In the twenty years that DocLisboa has been running, we have realised that literature, words, images and cinema can ask questions, raise doubts, remind us of what has happened and what happens, what we do not want to happen or to be repeated, what we have forgotten, what we have not forgotten, what we remember and want to remember.

Art in general, and cinema in particular, often allows us to find a shelter, but also public debate. DocLisboa has sought to be a space for debate and critical thought. Twenty years of fighting to recover narratives which are so often left untold.

O que podem as palavras reminds us of the urgency to rescue collective stories that never made it into history and the importance of telling history through multiple voices.




Graduated in Arts and Humanities with a major on Performative Arts and Cultural Communication at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon. Professionally has been working on production, artistic direction and cultural programming, has collaborated with entities like DocLisboa, European Broadcaster Union, Plural Entertainment, Teatro São Luiz and Teatro do Bairro Alto. Currently has been a cultural producer and programmer at Gerador, content editor at Revista Fome and is enrolled in the Master of Aesthetics and Artistics Studies with a major on Cinema and Photography at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Nova University of Lisbon.

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